The international departure hall of Shanghai’s Pudong Airport is full of Chinese students leaving for the US. Photo: Xinhua

The once-deserted international departure terminal at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, one of China’s busiest gateways for international air traffic in its pre-Covid heyday, is buzzing again.

Long queues have returned to check-in counters with seats on flights bound for America, Canada and the United Kingdom quickly filled up. Latecomers have to pay sky-high prices to be placed on waiting lists amid the scramble for limited tickets. 

Such scenes since last week appear to be in contrast with Beijing’s imperative to seal its borders even tighter and stop issuing passports so its nationals cannot travel abroad to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The crowds are not Chinese tourists or business travelers, but students determined to venture to the West and return to their campuses for face-to-face instruction. They have spent more than a year languishing in China attending virtual learning sessions on Zoom and WeChat, with most of their Chinese classmates signing in from their homes. 

They rushed to pounce on available seats on the remaining direct flights to the United States when Washington dropped its entry ban on overseas students enrolled in American institutions this month. But flights have long been slashed since Covid’s outbreak. 

The crowd of Chinese students at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. Many are eager to return to the US for the new school year. Photo: WeChat

China News Service cited an estimate by Washington’s embassy in Beijing that between 80,000 and 100,000 Chinese students who fled the US at the onset of America’s Covid crisis in early 2020 would consider returning after more than a year of online classes. 

The return of Chinese youth will provide a financial boost to US tertiary institutions that derive much of their income from foreign enrolments, largely from China. Fears of a host of “push factors” keeping them away from frayed ties between Beijing and Washington to the resurgence of anti-Asian xenophobia in the US are not apparent in the youthful outrush seen at China’s airports.

Nor has the Biden government’s continuance of the previous Trump administration’s visa curbs on graduates from blacklisted Chinese schools and academies with alleged military connections. The US embassy insists that only “a fraction” of Chinese applicants have been turned away during visa adjudication.   

Former Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai said in 2019 that there were more than 350,000 Chinese students in the US that year, adding that the largest foreign student population could further underscore the people-to-people exchanges between the two powers and act as a “buffer” when the Sino-US rivalry had been intensifying on almost all other fronts.

Cui’s successor Qin Gang, who just embarked on his trip to Washington from Pudong as Beijing’s new top envoy earlier this month, is set to meet student representatives and tour some top US universities in September, according to a social media post by the semi-official Federation of Chinese Students in America. 

Qin may reassure students and stakeholders of Beijing’s continued support, when previous reports about China halting the issue of passports and tightening border controls added to the anxieties among parents and educators in both countries that Beijing could soon move to stem the outflow of its students.  

Chinese news portal NetEase reported that the queues at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport in front of check-in and security counters extended close to one kilometer during the past weekend. Undaunted by additional health check red tape and more paperwork, students waited for extended hours to board their flights. 

They also have needed to navigate their way through the regulatory and inspection labyrinth as they are required by the US embassy to present a clean medical slate signed off in English by qualified professionals. They also must fill in a new attestation form prepared by the State Department on top of the usual proof of residence in the US as well as student status.   

Chinese students are also making a detour via Hong Kong when tickets for direct flights are hard to come by in the mainland. Photo: WeChat

Fewer than 20 direct flights are currently permitted to operate between China and the US each week as Covid-induced restrictions have reduced travel to a minimum. Most airlines in both countries are nonetheless reluctant to go through the lengthy approval procedures needed to add additional departures as they feel such a spike in passenger numbers may only be one-way and short-lived. 

With tickets hard to secure, many Chinese students are making a detour via Hong Kong, where the city’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific is sending planes to Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere across mainland China to fly students to Hong Kong and feed them on to flights to North America. 

Cathay says it has maintained services to most of its destinations across the US and Canada and would work with its partners there to meet the rising demand. Unaffected by Beijing’s international flight quota, the Hong Kong carrier now flies to New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver.

Cathay is also expecting a windfall from the limited flights out of mainland China, as strong demand has pushed the price of an economy class ticket from Shanghai to Boston via Hong Kong to 40,000 yuan (US$6,173), according to the airline’s website.   

US carrier Delta this week also announced a plan to reinstate some previously canceled flights as chartered ones tailor-made for students, subject to China’s regulatory approval. The American airline now operates only four flights from China each week. 

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